Sermon How providential it is that today’s gospel is the parable of the Good Samaritan. How providential it is that on this morning after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin, the pressing question before us is, “Who is my neighbor?” Who is my neighbor — if only Jesus had given a direct answer to that question, if only Jesus had said plainly as he obviously meant, that everyone is my neighbor. When the law of God says to love your neighbor as yourself, it means you are to love all persons as you love yourself, to act toward everyone as you would have them act toward you. But Jesus doesn’t give such a direct answer to the lawyer’s question. Instead, when he asks “Who is my neighbor,” Jesus answers him by telling him a parable. Now usually Jesus told parables when he was trying to describe something ineffable, something that cannot be contained by language. He told parables to describe things like how the world will end, like what the nature of faith is, and like the Kingdom of God itself. Jesus’ parables are meant to explode our imaginations a bit, to expand our consciousness into different ways of thinking. They have the character of riddles — they take place in the topsy-turvy world of Jesus’ own imagination, where categories like first and last, rich and poor, friend and enemy are put on their head. Jesus’ parables often read like the best episodes of The Twilight Zone, the ones that have that great twist at the end, a great twist that not only surprises but more so unhinges your mind from its normal ways of reasoning, if just for a while, and makes you suddenly look at the real world with new eyes. It’s this kind of story that Jesus thinks is necessary in order to truly answer the question of “Who is my neighbor.” Jesus seems to think that saying who my neighbor strains the usefulness of ordinary language — it’s ineffable, like describing the Kingdom of God or the end of the world. I wonder what it is about this question that is so difficult to answer. Last night, when the news broke, my Facebook and Twitter feeds were afire with reactions to the verdict. One in particular stood out to me. It was the brief commentary William Jelani Cobb posted to The New Yorker website. Professor Cobb wrote this:
July 14, 2013 The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost Luke 10:25-37 The Rev’d Daniel A. Puchalla There will be a great deal said about what the verdict in this trial means, but most fundamentally we should understand that it means validation for the idea that the actions Zimmerman took that night were rational, the conclusions he drew sound, and that a black teen-ager can be considered armed any time he is walking down a paved street. The decision the six jurors reached on Saturday evening will inspire anger, frustration, and despair, but little surprise, and this is the most deeply saddening aspect of the entire affair.* Whatever else was involved in this horrible case — from figuring out who was on top of whom in that struggle on the pavement to the State of Florida’s bizarre notions of what constitutes legitimate self-defense — the fact remains that none of this would have happened, absolutely none of it, if George Zimmerman hadn’t come to the worst conclusions about who Trayvon Martin was and what he was doing in that neighborhood based on nothing more than his clothing, his age, his gender, and, most fundamentally, the color of his skin. At the very least, we should have been able to expect of our legal system an unreserved denunciation of that kind of twisted reasoning. But where our legal systems fail us, the Word of God today is all the more faithful. I wonder if it is precisely because of our penchant for twisted reasoning that causes Jesus to tell a parable as an answer to the seemingly simple question of, Who is my neighbor. Imagine if Jesus had given a direct answer, imagine if he had simply said, “Why, my lawyer friend, everyone is your neighbor, of course. Just go love everybody.” What if it had gone something like this, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. And another man while traveling came near him, and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds etc etc.” Go and do likewise. Okay, Jesus, I should help people who are in trouble. Well, that’s a nice morality lesson, but what are we missing? We’re missing the twist. To say you love everybody is merely an intellectual exercise because the category of “everybody” is an abstraction. None of us can actually love everybody. Love is something
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that is only possible in individual relationship, in the real daily living together with other human beings. We can only actually love other actual persons. But that’s also where the difficulty lies because actual persons always present difficulties to us, real or imagined. We come up with all sorts of ways of not loving others and justifying ourselves by, in effect, demoting them from status as our neighbors — because they voted for the other guy, because they’re undocumented, because they make too much money or not enough, because they look like they’re up to no good — all the while also convincing ourselves that it’s not jingoism, it’s not classism, it’s not racism. We all do this, falling for our own twisted reasoning in exempting this person or that person walking the very same street as me, living mere blocks away from me, exempting them from the divine command to love them as I love myself. Jesus answered with a parable to the lawyer, Jesus answers with a parable to us today because we need that twist in the story to untwist our twisted reasoning. We need our minds unhinged a bit, shaken from normal operation. We need that twist, that Twilight Zone moment, to free us from the oh-so-reasonable excuses we build for ourselves for showing anyone less-than neighborly love. Who is my neighbor? That’s not the question. The question is, “Who is your Samaritan?” Who is the person whom you have dismissed from being your neighbor, whom you have exempted from receiving your love? But let’s take it one step deeper. This parable is not just about showing love to people whom we find it difficult to show love to for one twisted reason or another. That would have been a different story, maybe we can call it the parable of the Good Jew because it would have gone something like this: “A Samaritan was traveling along a road and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and left him half dead. A Jewish man was traveling; when he saw him he was moved with pity, and he bandaged his wounds etc etc.” Again, a wonderful morality tale. The lawyer could have then said to Jesus, “Ah, teacher, I myself am a Jew, therefore I too will do as this man did and have mercy on those who are my enemy.”
important and much more disturbing than merely giving moral advice. He is addressing something deeper than morality, deeper than the rational decision-making of right or wrong. What he’s doing is unseating those basic assumptions we carry around with us about the world and other people, those pre-cognitive, instinctive, visceral prejudices we all have that categorize certain people as something less than full persons based on nothing else than how they look and how they speak — that place within us where racism really thrives. I sort of hate that we call this parable “the Good Samaritan,” because it makes it sound like this Samaritan was remarkable for being good, which is contrary to the whole point of the parable in the first place. It plays into those who would have assumed the worst about Samaritans. What we should call it is “the goodness of Samaritans” because that, at least as I read it today, is what this parable calls us to acknowledge — not just to be good to those whom we perceive as different from us but to see the full goodness of God’s image within them. That is what is so terribly, terribly sad about this chapter in our country’s already sad history of racial injustice. It’s not just that George killed Trayvon, as terrible as that is; it’s that George utterly failed to see the goodness in Trayvon. Merely by his appearance, he assumed him to be a punk, a criminal, up to no good. And so in that one moment when George destroyed Trayvon’s life, I venture to wonder if he didn’t think he was destroying a life of much value at all. Trayvon was killed for the same twisted reason so many young black lives are destroyed, because it is assumed that they are up to no good — that they are no good. God give us the resolve to tirelessly challenge such twisted reasoning wherever we find it: in policing and the courts, in education and healthcare, in political speech and government policy, in religion, and certainly most of all within our our hearts and minds. Amen.
What is so profoundly unsettling about this parable, the real twist, is that it’s the Samaritan who is the hero of the story, the exemplar of that Jewish law the lawyer is asking Jesus how to obey. The only way the lawyer has of entering the story, of applying the story to his own life, is by identifying himself as a Jew with the Samaritan, his enemy. Jesus is doing something here much more
* William Jelani Cobb, “George Zimerman, Not Guilty: Blood on the Leaves,” newyorker.com (July 13, 2013).